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Opinion: Fight for Chicago kids vs. Big Tobacco

JOEL SAGETJOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

From music to sports, food to architecture, Chicago has long been a national leader. In recent years, Chicago has set an example in another critical way: Protecting kids from tobacco, the No. 1 cause of preventable death in our country. On March 16, the City Council can take the next big step toward a tobacco-free generation by approving a proposed ordinance that includes an array of effective measures to further reduce tobacco use.

OPINION

This ordinance includes an increase in the city’s tobacco sale age to 21, a promising new approach to reducing tobacco use among young people that is spreading across the country. It would also prohibit the use of coupons and other discounting schemes that tobacco companies use to lure customers, especially price-sensitive youth; increase prices on non-cigarette tobacco products such as smokeless tobacco and cigars that have been popular with kids; provide more enforcement funding to combat illegal cigarette sales; strengthen penalties to address the problem of the illegal sale of single cigarettes; and boost funding for programs to help smokers quit.

Together, these measures will protect Chicagoans, especially children and low-income communities, from tobacco addiction. These proposals will deliver the greatest health benefit to lower-income Chicagoans, who are heavily targeted by the tobacco industry and have the highest rates of smoking, along with higher rates of related illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. The age 21 proposal also shifts penalties for violations onto the retailers who profit from the illegal tobacco sales to youth and away from young people.

This ordinance builds on the strong steps Chicago has already taken to reduce youth tobacco use under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council. Chicago’s leaders have increased the city’s cigarette tax; strengthened the comprehensive smoke-free air law to include electronic cigarettes; restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, near schools; and conducted public education campaigns. The results are astounding. Chicago’s high school smoking rate fell to a record low of just 10.7 percent in 2013, a decline of nearly 60 percent since 2001.

Increasing the tobacco age to 21, in particular, will help reduce tobacco use even further among youth and young adults – age groups when nearly all tobacco use begins and that are heavily targeted by the tobacco industry. Raising the sale age to 21 will also help keep tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often obtain tobacco products from older students. A March 2015 report by the prestigious Institute of Medicine concluded that raising the tobacco age to 21 would significantly reduce smoking among youth and young adults and have other health benefits.

Chicago can become the second largest city after New York City to raise the tobacco age to 21. There is growing momentum nationwide to raise the age, with the state of Hawaii and at least 125 cities and counties having enacted such laws.

The other proposals are based on decades of scientific evidence as well. We know that raising the price of tobacco products is one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, especially among kids and low-income populations. Chicago’s high cigarette tax has driven down smoking. Tobacco companies spend huge sums to discount tobacco prices and promote products, such as cheap, sweet cigars, that appeal to kids.

With so many benefits from this ordinance, who could possibly be opposed? The tobacco industry and its friends, of course. It is outrageous that tobacco interests are convincing some city council members that continuing the flow of cheap and deadly tobacco products to kids is somehow a good thing.

The real reason tobacco companies oppose these measures is because their survival depends on hooking young people as replacements for the nearly half a million Americans their products kill each year. The City Council should side with Chicago’s kids over Big Tobacco and approve this life-saving ordinance without delay.

Matthew L. Myers is the president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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